It was August 2, 2001 and it was the beginning of a hot summer Thursday in New York City. After an event-filled week, I was standing exhausted and adrift outside the Millenium Hilton directly across from the World Trade Center.
I had directed the communications efforts for an acquisition my firm had made on Wall Street, one that seemed so important then, but is only a footnote today. In Milwaukee, my nephew had just been born. Back home, Minnesota Viking Korey Stringer died of heatstroke at a hot practice in Mankato, Minn.
Sometime the day before, in the rush of flights between New York and Boston, I had lost the power cord to my Blackberry, leaving me unable to call or email anyone as I stared glumly at the tableau of the streets, balancing my bags and a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts I was bringing back for the office in Minneapolis.
It was an odd moment for me. Having lived in New York, I had spent little time around the towers, thinking of it as only a spot for tourists who didn’t really know the city. While the view up the base was dizzying, I found the area around them a barren courtyard with little appeal, too much of a walk from the F train stop to be worth the trip.
And I had long learned to not stare at anyone when I was in Manhattan – in my first days in the city my open Midwestern face had attracted panhandlers who saw me as an easy mark.
But on this day, I was so relieved to have finished a difficult assignment that I began to openly people watch the workers who went into the buildings, many racing to make it to their desks by 8 a.m. Every ethnic group and every color were represented, all so young and determined as they streamed across Church Street to their jobs.
It struck me in that moment that this was the new American dream: secretaries and assistants who were just getting by working in what the world thought of as a premiere location in Manhattan. But, in the heat of the morning, it was more like standing outside a grimy factory gate. In skirts and suits, the workers I watched had their game faces on, looking resigned to another day at work as they clutched purses and New York tabloids in one hand and, in the other, the Manhattan breakfast of coffee in covered blue cups and bagels in brown paper bags.
It haunts me, that otherwise unremarkable day. How could they have known the fate that lay ahead of them; the chaos and terror of that day little more than a month away?
How many of the people I saw are alive today? Who were the ones who overslept that day, called in sick or dallied on their way to work? Who made the decision to leave and led others down the stairs?
And who of them heeded calls to stay at their desks, left behind without a trace to be mourned quietly in a private corner?
And, how could it be that they would die for no reason other than going to work that day, a day little different than the one when their lives brushed by mine?